Lily and Sadanala John, were married in India 75 years ago on December 14th when Lily was just 15 years old. Photographed in the home of their son, Mervyn John. (Jonathan Newton/TWP)
Reporter December 13, 2013

Lily John wasn’t thinking 75 years into the future when she married her husband, Sadanala. At the time, the retirement age in India was 58, so they figured they’d be lucky to have 40 or 50 years together.

Besides, who can conceive of the next 71 / 2 decades when you haven’t even reached your 16th birthday?

Many of Lily’s friends and relatives were opposed to the marriage. “Everyone said, ‘She’s too young,’ ” recalls Lily, now 90 and still beautiful, with long gray hair pulled back into a bun.

They met in Bangalore, where Sadanala came to attend junior college from his hometown on the east coast. He’d gone to a Seventh-day Adventist high school and converted to Christianity as a teenager.

Lily’s family belonged to the Bangalore church he joined, and because they spoke the same regional language, they often invited Sadanala home for meals after services. He was a quiet man in his early 20s, known to be a hard worker, and often after dinner he and Lily would sit talking. “And sometimes the talks went longer and longer,” Lily says with a schoolgirl’s giggle. Soon she was walking him to and from the train he took to get to church.

Another suitor was also interested in Lily, but she refused his entreaties for a commitment. “I said, ‘I have to find my own. The one who I like,’ ” she recalls.

Less than a year after they met, she and Sadanala decided to marry. Despite the concerns of some in the community, Lily’s parents supported the union. Sadanala was kind and ethical and had a salary working as an accountant for the church. On Dec 14, 1938, almost 200 people came to watch as they exchanged vows at the Seventh-day Central Church in Bangalore.

Despite the joyful wedding, newlywed life proved difficult. Lily had to leave high school before graduating and quickly became pregnant with her first child. The church transferred Sadanala to the west coast of India, where their son, Edwin, was born. But when he was 9 months old, the baby became constipated and was treated with castor oil. It was administered through a tracheotomy that caused the child to stop breathing. Their happy, healthy baby was suddenly dead.

Sadanala was away on business at the time. “I thought God was cruel to me,” Lily recalls. “And I was just 16.”

Despite their grief, life kept marching on. Soon came a daughter, Helen, and another daughter, Irene. Their son Mervyn was born in 1944, and Daniel arrived five years later. When the children were school age, the family settled back in Bangalore. Sadanala’s paycheck always seemed to run out by the middle of every month. Lily made the children’s clothing by hand and found ways to scrimp by but insisted that there always be new books in the house.

“It was a real struggle,” Lily says. “But we saw that all the children have the best education. That was my own point.”

Sadanala could have earned a higher salary working as an accountant elsewhere, but the church and their faith was central to their lives. “We went through difficult times, but through it all, God has helped,” says Sadanala, who now requires a hearing aid and is slowed by diabetes, but at 97 remains in remarkably good health.

When the children got older, Lily began teaching school. Soon the children were enrolled in college, and the oldest and youngest continued to medical school. In 1970, the couple’s middle daughter and her husband moved to the Washington area. Two years later, Lily came over with Helen, an obstetrician.

At age 49, Lily enrolled in a course to get her GED and then studied to become a nurse, a dream she had held since she was a young girl. Two years later, Sadanala retired after 39 years of service with the church and joined Lily in the States. He found accounting work in a Florida Avenue glass factory and became a diehard Redskins fan.

By the late 1970s, the whole family was reunited in the Washington area, where they now live within a half-hour from each other and gather every Friday night for potluck dinners with Lily and Sadanala’s five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

On Sunday, the couple will mark their 75th anniversary with a party for 300 people at the South Asian Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring. But Lily often remarks to her children that it doesn’t seem possible that three-quarters of a century has passed since she stood as a bride. “It went by quite fast,” she says with a smile from the kitchen table of their son Mervyn’s Laurel home, where they now live.

The key to their longevity, Lily says, is mutual understanding and commitment. There was never a thought of divorce or separation. “We had financial problems and others. But no blaming because we are in this state,” she says. “We managed. No criticizing and fighting — that was the main thing. Support each other. That’s my advice.”

Their four children say Lily and Sadanala raised them with an emphasis on faith, family and personal responsibility. If one of them made a mistake, it was their responsibility to make it right. None of them can remember either of their parents gossiping or telling so much as a white lie.

“And they’re very good communicators,” Mervyn says. “They keep each other very well informed and know exactly what’s being done. So they’re close in that respect.”

Lily and Sadanala’s example, says son Daniel, taught their children and grandchildren that “no matter what, you keep going. You don’t give up. Every problem can be solved if you’re willing to talk it through.”

Looking back, Sadanala says, he couldn’t have made it without God’s help — or Lily’s. “She stood by me in every effort,” he says. “So she was a great support to me. And I must thank her for all these 75 years she stood by me. I’m grateful to her.”

“And the remaining years I do not know,” he continues. “But God knows. We are in his hands. We have nothing to fear. And I have my good children, who will take care of us to the end.”

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